"As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry; or all spiritual facts are represented by natural symbols."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
An image of the embrace lingers on screen. High above San Francisco, two figures are locked together. There is an exchange occurring, an expression of ambiguous emotion. In parting, in grief, in love; we do not know. The act is at once silent and cacophonous, one and many embraces. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, how many stories are captured in the seemingly closed circle of an embrace? The 20-odd minute video could almost be a photograph were it not for the subtly changing hues of the city below, the sound of the wind, and the gentle sway of the bodies.
There is an intimacy to Greer Rochford’s Embrace #2 that immediately compels; it is nonverbal conversation, a longing for closeness, the expression of something just beyond our reach. When we talk about emotionality in language, we tend to talk about silence, stuttering, misspeaking, mumbling, laughing, crying, physicality, intonation. Seldom do we talk about the words themselves. Rather, it seems the language of emotions relies on understanding beyond comprehension, on embodied and lived experience. A sense beyond logic.
The origin of our spoken language remains one of humanity’s greatest mysteries. We don’t know when it happened. We don’t know if it happened all at once or slowly. We don’t know if it sprung from one or many different primitive languages. We don’t know if a genetic mutation was involved. So overwhelming was the topic considered in 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris banned debate around the origin of human languages completely. And that’s just speech. There are countless languages outside the spoken, and of these we know even less.
The founding father of American Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote that there was a ‘radical correspondence’ between the physical world and human expression. "The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world," he professed. For Emerson, artistic production should throw light ‘upon the mystery of humanity’. "A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world. It is the result or expression of nature, in miniature." Although Transcendentalism has lost some of its luster as a major cultural movement (as it was in the early- to mid-1800s), it remains an interesting moment in the history of human thinking, and one that bears revisiting, especially as applied to artistic production.
In musing on art and beauty, Emerson goes on to reference an Italian definition of beauty, ‘il piu nell uno’ (‘the many in the one’). The relationship between a single natural expression and its abstract conceptual marker is paradoxical. It is the rift opened between a word and its utterance, between a particular embrace in time and the idea of embrace. Rochford’s almost static clinch embodies this multiplicity. Stripped of context, of narrative, of a before and after or a who and why, we can only imagine why the pair embrace. In itself, the act is both singular and multiple; a universal act embodied in infinitely singular ways.
Although Emerson’s idea that there is a Spiritual realm that ‘transcends’ our own is somewhat passé in secular philosophy, the concept of this rift - the liminal space between the idea and actuality of a thing - remains intriguing, and is certainly alive and well in the art world. Rochford’s Embrace series, the latest instalment of which was performed live at PSH Gallery in Rozelle, explores these tensions and the moment when, for Emerson, all language becomes picture, poetry, nature. Removed from the unending flow of time, narratives, speech, context, Rochford’s Embrace series captures that moment when actuality slips into our murky inner life, when a particular embrace opens our eyes to the elusive intensity common to all embraces, when language eludes meaning. It is an event; that portal between sensation and expression.